Toledo native Dennis Draper debuted as a professional super middleweight boxer in an atmosphere that resembled a family reunion at the Sports Arena Saturday night.
About 250 friends and relatives did all they could to help the Scott High School graduate win his first pro bout, but Draper dropped a unanimous decision to Henry Mayes of Baltimore. Draper's fight was the second of a six-card event labeled Defendin' Our Home at the Riverdome and presented by former Olympian Devin Vargas. It also marked Draper's official commitment to making professional boxing his career.
"I took a big step. It was a good lesson," the father of four said.
Four other Toledoans did chalk up victories, including a stunning, one-punch knockout by Vargas. His brother Dallas won his 19th fight in the main event.
Draper, who gives his age as 29, also had three brothers, father, mother, wife and a huge throng of other supporters providing vocal support.
"I was so nervous. I've never felt anything like that," he said. "The nerves overpowered me. I was so geeked up, I couldn't do what I wanted to do. There were a lot of people here and I didn't want to upset them."
Draper, who had never been knocked down and won 70 fights as an amateur, got caught twice by Mayes and went down in the first and second rounds. He came back strong in the third and fourth rounds with constant pressure, but lost in a decision.
"He's still a winner to us," said Dennis' older brother Julian Cunningham. "It's been a real big family thing. We help him with his exercise and diet. It's like we've all been training with him."
Draper has fought out of the Glass City Boxing Gym for the last four years. He does odd jobs, such as cutting grass and carpentry. His wife, Kim, helps support the family as a nurse's assistant. The Drapers' oldest child is 14 and the youngest 18 months.
"This is what he wants to do, so I support him in his career choice," Kim said. "He'll keep moving up. His heart is just so huge."
Dennis' father, Ronnie, was a professional fighter in Toledo. Several of his uncles also were boxers.
"It's just something he has always wanted to do," said his mother, Deborah. "This was the first time I saw him fight without the head gear. It was a traumatic experience. I just thank God he was able to get up."
Draper was slated to make between $1,000 and $1,500 for appearing in the show.
"I couldn't bear to watch it," Kim said. "But I had to see it so I watched with one eye open."
Followers of another fighter on the card, Dan Whetzel, also likely had trouble watching his slugfest with heavyweight Jason Waller. Whetzel, a former University of Toledo football player and a Gibsonburg High athlete, suffered a cut above his eye but emerged with a majority decision.
"I love to fight here. It's not like this anywhere else," said the 33-year-old, who owns an auto repair shop.
Whetzel was escorted to the ring by a large entourage amid rousing cheers from the home crowd.
The first five rounds of the six-round bout were close with the heavyweights battling it out at close quarters. Whetzel turned it up in the sixth to improve his record to 5-3 with the win over Waller (27-26) of Alexandria, Va.
"I felt like I had 'em," Whetzel said. "But the guys in my corner were acting excited so I picked it up a little bit. I like to finish strong just in case the judges might look the other way."
Another Toledo fighter, Martin Tucker, quickly took care of his opponent with a first-round technical knockout.
"I expected him to just stand there and he stood there too long," said Tucker, a 25-year-old light-heavyweight who attended Woodward High School.
All three boxers vowed to use their matches as lessons and said they look forward to fighting in front of the home crowd again.
"There will be no more losses," Draper said. "Toledo won't be disappointed next time."
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com or 419-724-6110.